The Mecklenburg Union Metropolitan Planning Organization voted unanimously Wednesday night to add the N.C. DOT’s proposed I-77 widening project to the region’s long-range transportation plan and priority list. The vote was uneventful, but the meeting wasn’t, as toll opponents packed a meeting room in the Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center continuing their fight against the widening project.
With the MUMPO vote, the project now formally advances to the next stage: Accepting bids from the private companies seeking to build and run the toll-lane project. Officials caution that it’s still possible the process won’t produce a successful bidder, though four companies are said to be in the running.
As many as 50 people, many from the Cornelius-based opposition group Widen I-77, were at the meeting. They objected loudly when MUMPO chair and Huntersville commissioner Sarah McAuley announced the group would be given 10 minutes collectively to present their arguments.
As the group’s leaders, including Kurt Naas of Cornelius and Vince Winegardner of Davidson, continued to protest instead of taking the podium, McAuley announced that public comments were closed, according to people who were at the meeting. That infuriated opponents even more.
“It turned into more of a shouting match,” said Cornelius delegate and commissioner Chuck Travis, who also chairs the Lake Norman Transportation Commission.
Eventually, the Widen I-77 contingent left the room, as MUMPO delegates continued their meeting. When the I-77 project came up on the agenda, there was little discussion, and the vote was unanimous.
“We went on to approve it, unanimously. It was really uneventful,” said Brian Jenest, a Davidson commissioner and delegate to MUMPO.
Travis said he thought it was significant that the motion to approve the I-77 project came from Charlotte delegate David Howard.
MUMPO is a regional planning organization that helps set priorities for transportation projects. MUMPO’s votes are weighted by population, with Charlotte having the lion’s share – 16 votes. Huntersville, Matthews, Mecklenburg County, Mint Hill, Monroe, and Union have two votes each; other members – including Davidson and Cornelius – have one vote.
Wednesday’s vote followed a variety of public meetings and a 30-day public comment period, which ended a month ago.
WIDENING I-77 NOW
The DOT is proposing to convert existing lanes or construct new lanes to create high-occupancy toll lanes from I-277 in Charlotte north to Exit 36 in Mooresville. Two HOT lanes would be built in each direction between Charlotte and Exit 28 in Cornelius. One HOT lane would be added in each direction between Cornelius and Mooresville, a section that includes two causeways over Lake Norman.
The entire project would cost an estimated $550 million, including $170 million in public funding. It would include a variety of related improvements, include rebuilding bridges over I-77 north of Charlotte and construction High Occupancy Toll lanes, or HOT lanes.
The state hopes to pick a private partner this summer. Construction could begin in 2015, and the first stretch of widened road would be open in 2017, NC DOT has said.
Drivers would not have to use the HOT lanes, but could choose them when congestion increases. Tolls would rise as traffic grows, to ensure that the HOT lanes don’t get too crowded.
“What a lot of folks don’t understand is that these toll lanes provide reliability and predictability, because they guarantee certain speeds,” Jenest said Wednesday night.
As a consultant explained at another LNTC meeting in Cornelius in March, the goal of the project is to guarantee a reliable ride to and from Charlotte. Tolls would be assessed using an electronic radio-frequency toll system. The fee would rise as the road gets more crowded, to keep the toll lanes flowing, and fall as traffic thins.
State officials say tolls are the best way to help pay for the widening project now, instead of waiting 15 years or more for funding through the DOT’s normal process. Besides generating revenues the project, by incorporating tolls, would qualify for federal and state funds not otherwise available for general purpose (non-toll) lanes, officials say.
But I-77 opponents, including Widen I-77, have been battling against the DOT’s plan. They say the HOT lanes project is too expensive, won’t relieve congestion, and would lock the state into a contract with a private company for too long. They’d like to see the state its limited funds to construct a much smaller project from Exits 23 to 36.
CHANGES IN STATE FUNDING POLICY
Wednesday’s meeting also included a presentation on Gov. McCrory’s proposed Strategic Mobility Formula, which would alter the way the state allocates its limited road funds.
I-77 toll opponents have seized on the proposed legislation as they argued against the DOT’s plan, saying they hoped the new formula would help get funding for general purpose lanes instead of tolls. They’ve urged officials to hold off on the HOT lanes project until officials have a chance to rank the a widening project of general purpose lanes using the new formula.
But in recent days, more informaiton about the new formula has emerged. State officials say it also will place a priority on tolls.
State Sen. Jeff Tarte said in an interview Tuesday that he, too, has wondered if there might be hope for general purpose lanes in the new formula.
“But the (new) formula has tolling built into it .. and tolling is what’s going to bump 77 up the list,” he said.
He also said regions would have a financial incentive to incorporate tolls into new road projects. “Anywhere there are tolls, they’re going to allow additional revenues to stay in that MPO (metropolitan planning organization) to move other priorities up,” he said.
See previous stories about I-77 on CorneliusNews.net.